Last week, several hundred unemployed, underemployed, and underpaid steelworkers demonstrated in Tehran outside of the Iranian parliament. In the wake of the election of moderate cleric Hassan Rouhani many working class Iranians are hoping for economic reforms. Furthermore, the protests underscore the poor treatment of labor rights under the present regime in Iran – an issue that is sometimes ignored in the Western media in favor of questions about political and religious rights.
For the most part, the protesters were working class people from a town in Iranian Kurdistan, who reportedly could not afford hotel rooms during their stay in Tehran. This portrait differs markedly from the portrayal of Iranian protesters in Western media as urban, middle and upper class, and primarily concerned with political reforms and social freedoms.
Of course, in Iran, political reforms and economic growth are intrinsically related, as the economic struggles of the country have emerged in large part from devastating Western sanctions. Sanctions have driven up inflation to record levels, meaning that paychecks, particularly among the working class, no longer keep pace with the cost of living.
However, the demands of Iran’s industrial workers often focus on structural changes to labor within the country, rather than the impact of Iran’s nuclear program on sanctions and rising prices. On May 1 of this year, International Worker’s Day, steel factory laborers in small cities and towns across the country gathered to protest against unpaid wages and poor working conditions.
The issue of workers’ rights in Iran tends to receive less media attention than women’s rights, religious freedom, or political speech. Despite this, prominent labor rights advocates often receive similar treatment to other opposition leaders, as Iran places severe restrictions on union formation. For example, Reza Shahabi, a founder of one of Iran’s most famous trade unions, has been locked up in Evin prison since 2010.
The Islamic Republic’s complex and often antagonistic relationship with trade unions and workers’ opposition is rooted in its difficult history with leftists, unions, and workers. A large part of the Iranian left supported the Islamic Revolution, especially since the Shah had oppressed labor activists and opposed the creation of trade unions. While laborers played a central role in the Revolution, particularly through strikes, after 1979 Khomeini’s followers gradually pushed labor leaders out of power and clamped down on the rights of unions and workers.
The recent labor protests illustrate the tensions left over from a revolution that, to many, promised economic empowerment, but instead delivered political oppression, as well as the hopes of working class Iranians for economic reform under Rouhani. While distrustful of labor leaders, the Iranian government has occasionally been willing to work with groups of protesting workers. Indeed, the semi-official Iranian news agency Fars reported that the steelworkers who traveled to Tehran secured a meeting with Iranian parliamentarians.
So far, Rouhani seems interested in reaching out to labor groups, promising to increase the minimum wage and ensure that back wages are paid. Whether he will be able to deliver these sorts of economic reforms, without fundamentally altering Iran’s foreign policy and political goals in the face of continued sanctions, remains to be seen.